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Heartbeats and Hiccups: Cesar Padilla and Reena Thomas

In the Heartbeats and Hiccups video series we explore passions and pivots through a conversation on the defining moments of our careers.

Heartbeats and Hiccups: From passions to pivots, a conversation about the defining moments that shape our careers

Now close colleagues, Stanford Medicine anesthesiologist Cesar Padilla and neurooncologist Reena Thomas had a connection before they ever met -- one they discovered years later through shared passions.

In his time as a community college student, Padilla, MD, a clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine, attended the Stanford University Minority Medical Alliance (SUMMA) conference more than a decade ago. The event, led by Thomas, MD, PhD, an associate dean in Stanford School of Medicine's Office of Diversity in Medical Education, aims to increase diversity in the health professions to better care for underserved communities.

"I came to Stanford's campus when I was 19," said Padilla. "It gave me a lot of confidence to feel like I could really belong here."

The conference has been running for 32 years and is one of myriad efforts that have stemmed from a drive by Thomas, Padilla and others to nurture a culture of inclusivity and support diversity among a future generation of Stanford Medicine doctors and scientists. Their efforts and careers, while independent, are interwoven and symbiotic. One of Padilla's latest efforts -- to establish recognition of National Latino/a Physician Day -- was supported by Thomas and the medical education diversity office.

"You bring the energy, Cesar," Thomas told Padilla during a conversation we facilitated to capture their reflections on their career paths, their relationship and their goals for the work they're doing at Stanford Medicine. The following are excerpts from their conversation. They have been lightly edited for clarity.

What project brought you together as collaborators?

Padilla: When we first met at Stanford Medicine, I remember telling you a little about my past work, and I mentioned that I'd started a medical school Spanish-speaking patient program. We use standardized patients, or actors, so medical students can practice speaking Spanish in a clinical setting. I mentioned that to you, and it was just a blip to me, and I remember you turned to me and said, "Cesar, we have to do that here." It's amazing because we did, and each of the scenarios taught are based off real Stanford Health Care patient demographics.

Thomas: And our students loved it and learned so much. I remember distinctly that I thought, "Oh, done, check. We're doing this." You brought that enthusiasm and that energy and you really led the way.

Why is mentorship such an important aspect of cultivating a diverse next generation of care givers and researchers? How does SUMMA fit into that?

Thomas: The intention around SUMMA is actually pretty straightforward. We know there's so much talent in our Bay Area youth, in our communities of color, in our Latino communities. And there is a lot of desire to do more and achieve more in higher education. But there is, sometimes, a lack of mentorship or people that have had the same journey who can give concrete instruction and information about the path to academic medicine, medical careers and other health professions.

And that's the intention of SUMMA: to bring our medical students who have gone through that journey together and give them an opportunity to be leaders and teachers of that conference. The community college students bring that desire to learn, and our medical students have the desire to give back and to bring that next generation into medicine.

Padilla: To me, as a former attendee, SUMMA represents the future of medicine. Data shows that most of our underserved minority students come from community colleges, or at least a large portion. And when we train doctors from community colleges, they go back to their communities to serve them. Community colleges have a vital pool of talent and SUMMA draws on that.

How does your collaboration support building a more diverse physician population, and how does it likewise engender a sense of inclusivity and belonging?

Padilla: The office you help oversee, the Office of Diversity in Medical Education, provides space for new ideas -- that's crucial and it's already happening. For instance, with Latino Faculty Advocacy Meetings, or L-FAM, this is happening because of your support.

I feel like I have the intellectual freedom and creativity to do this because of this home your team has provided. It's happening locally, yes, but the vision is national -- on a big scale. We want to do the best for our communities, and that's where I think Stanford Medicine really gives us the tools to become national leaders.

Thomas: We are your cheerleaders and rooting for you along the way, but it's your vision and your enthusiasm that energizes this.

Padilla: I just have to say thank you, because when I arrived to Stanford, even though I was raised here, there's a little bit of that, "Am I going to fit in" kind of thing. And the diversity in medical education office really became a home for me. And that's so important, because we all need a home.

Photo by Todd Holland

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